I Was Drugged By A Stranger

One night at a music festival, someone put something in my drink. What happened next was humiliating and taught me how common these incidents are, and how easy, and wrong, it is to blame the victim.

Justine Zwiebel for BuzzFeed

By the third and final day of the Outside Lands music festival last year, my boyfriend and I were good and exhausted. We’d seen Beck and Jack White and Sigur Rós and a lot of Metallica fans in black with wallet chains. We’d traipsed through crowded, dusty hilly paths beneath sycamores and eucalyptus. We’d zipped ourselves in fleece when the fog came in and put on shades when the sun broke through. We pushed through gaggles of children in cutoffs and headdresses in various states of undress. Last I’d been home in the Bay Area for this festival was five years before, for the very first one. I had been in college then. I now felt old and somehow apart from the spectacle and danger of youth and felt surprisingly fine about that.

We had a red eye back to Iowa that night; I had to teach the next afternoon and my boyfriend, Brian, had work. My little brother, Tom, a dubstep producer who’s graduated from college and lives back with our parents, had come along for the day, in part to give us a ride to the airport after, but mostly to see Skrillex, the Sunday headliner and his idol. Tom is as reverent of dubstep as I am indifferent to it; an example of the many things we don’t have in common. He wore Knockarounds and a sleeveless T-shirt that showed off his arms, and his head swiveled about at the parade of flesh.

We’d gotten to the festival in the early afternoon, each eaten a humungous fried chicken sandwich, seen several shows, and had three beers apiece over the course of many hours. Brian and I were taking it easy; we didn’t want to be drunk on our flight. As we made our way to where Skrillex would be performing, though, we passed the wine-tasting tent and I remembered I had a few tickets for it still left in my pocket. As I’m a wine nerd and Brian is averse to wasting things, we popped in and chatted with a few more winemakers, sampling a few pours out of the nice, stemless, plastic wine glasses we’d been toting around with us all weekend. The crowd trudged and sun fell. The air was thick with the feeling that the whole weekend was about to end, that soon everyone would go back to their lives and only trash-strewn lawns would remain.

I had a swallow of a Sonoma Blanc de Blanc left in my cup when we got as close as we could to the stage. It was packed. Brian said he had to use the bathroom and walked up toward the Porta-Potty lines. A few minutes later, Skrillex descended in his twinkling, throbbing spaceship, and Tom, elated, fist in the air, pushed ahead into the crowd.

The next thing I remember I was sitting on an airplane.

I was on an airplane, in a window seat, and this was not a dream. The airplane was on the ground. The lights were still on and flight attendants were passing by tapping the overhead compartments. I was drowsy, terrified; something had gone horribly wrong. I’d done something horribly wrong. Brian was with me.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I started saying to him, and I started to cry. I must have been loud because he tried to quiet me. He told me it was OK but he seemed frustrated. The lights dimmed and a woman’s voice talked as we taxied away from the gate.

My bag was at my feet, my phone in my pocket, as were my ID and boarding pass — how, I had no idea. My phone announced it was midnight from my shaking hands. Four hours missing entirely from my brain: a show, a walk, a drive, a TSA checkpoint. The noise grew and we ascended.

My brother would have already arrived home, I realized. He would have already told my mom that I was wasted, the most wasted he’d ever seen me. The most wasted I’d ever been in my life, apparently. This was bad.

This was especially bad because of the family I come from. My dad has been an alcoholic most of my life — the kind who guzzles vodka he hides in the woodpile and, hunched, screams in your face until he goes upstairs to snore. My mom never left him. She and my brother are close. I spent my teenage years trying to make them change and haven’t lived within 2,000 miles of them as an adult. And now on one of my rare trips home, in front of my brother, my mother’s sentinel, I’d gone and done this.

The dimmed cabin was quiet but for my sobbing, and the red light on the plane’s wing blinked on and off. Then Brian realized something: “Maybe you were drugged.”

He explained I’d slumped against him when he came back from the Porta-Potties and remained there through the show. He had figured I was just tired but it was dark and loud. But then he and my brother had to more or less carry me through the streets of the Sunset District to the car, and all the while I was babbling nonsense, he said, and stumbling, bumping into parking meters and poles. Crossing one street, I collapsed. He and my brother were terrified, unsure how I’d gotten so drunk. Somehow I had shut up and stood up somewhat straight as we made it through security and to our gate. Later he would apologize that he didn’t figure out what was happening sooner.

I sobbed more, realizing I could have been arrested. I could have been hospitalized, too. I could have been raped. My head pounded and Brian quieted me more, sympathetic but fried, until I finally passed out.

Justine Zwiebel for BuzzFeed

We lived in a little two-story on Iowa City’s north side. Its shingles were yellow and red roof tin. Blinking, I made my way down the path from the car and set my suitcase inside the screen door. It was an almost cruelly nice day. I sat on the back porch in the sunshine, overlooking the yard. I pressed my toes into the mangy lawn.

I pulled up my cuffs and saw my knees and shins were black and blue and raw. I felt sick, sad, listless, like I’d been lobotomized. It was hard to believe what had happened, what was happening.

I received an email from my dad, subject line: “Concert.”

“We were sorry to hear from Tom that you drank so heavily last night at the concert,” he wrote. “Tom was really worried about you, and Brian was scared for your health and safety. I hope you made it home OK. Brian is a nice guy and put up with it, but you could very well lose him over this kind of stuff. I know I’m the kettle calling the pot black, but you need to really take care with alcohol.”

The other thing about my dad’s alcoholism is he never acknowledged it. No matter how bad the night before — sheriff’s calls, a DUI, things screamed so mean they’d be singed on your brain forever — the next morning he’d be downstairs, showered and smiling. He’d pour your orange juice. He’d drive you to school. He would apologize for nothing because he acted like there was nothing to apologize for. The last line of his email, naming himself the pot, confusing that idiom, was probably the closest he’d ever come to admitting he had a problem with alcohol to me.

Though logically I knew that comparing our two actions was unfair, total bullshit, the accusation he was making, coming from him especially, stoked my fear — the fear all children of alcoholics have, I think — of becoming like him, and the shame I felt for the night before. His words tossed oil onto my smoldering self-loathing and I shook with groggy sobs in the late morning sun.

A neighbor’s cat, Tuna, traipsed over. She was a tortoiseshell calico with yellow eyes who had adopted half the homes on our block. She flopped on her back. I stopped sobbing and scratched her until she popped back up and away. The squirrels cackled from the trees.

I wrote him back, explaining we believed I’d been drugged. To that he quickly replied: “I’m glad you are home safe. Enough said.”

Upstairs I undressed. I cringed at my dusty jeans, the bra lines on my dehydrated skin. I had not been sexually assaulted, I knew, and knew this was something to be grateful for. I’d been at the show with two men. Whoever had drugged me had made a mistake in thinking I was alone. I pictured again and again the moment it must have happened — Brian gone to the bathroom, my brother pushing ahead into the crowd, that last sip of sparkling wine in my hand. I tried to remember who, if anyone, had been around me, but there’d been so many, so many hats and sunglasses on the hats, and the forest had been dark and loud. I showered and cried.

Standing dripping in my wooden-floored bedroom, I googled “roofies” on my phone. The first results were from Urban Dictionary. The Wikipedia page for Flunitrazepam was long and technical; a multicolored three-dimensional model of its molecule rotated, as if on display.

In the months that followed I’d come to understand it’s unlikely I was actually “roofied.” Two studies have found that less than 1% of patients who reported being drugged actually had Rohypnol (brand-name Flunitrazepam) in their systems. The drug, a member of the Benzodiazepine family developed in the ’70s to treat insomnia, enhances GABA at the GABAA receptors, causing sedation, muscle relaxation — and, crucial to its outsized reputation as the go-to date-rape drug and its starring role in ’90s PSAs and Time covers — retrograde amnesia. While Rohypnol dissolves easily and is consumed without detection, its manufacturer produces a version in a thick shell and with a blue dye to discourage surreptitious use. While it’s illegal in this country, it still gets here.

But whoever drugged me might have used another, more easily obtained Benzo, like Valium, Librium, Xanax, or Ativan, all of which combined with the alcohol will knock someone out. Or he — I’m assuming, perhaps unfairly, that it was a man — may have used Gamma-hydroxybutyrate or GHB, a naturally occurring nervous system depressant, which dissolves easily, has no taste or smell, and, like Rohypnol, takes effect quickly, within 15 minutes to a half hour. Its effects last three to six hours and intensify with alcohol, interfering with blood circulation, motor coordination, balance and speech, inducing heavy sleep, leaving in its wake dizziness, tremors, delusions, amnesia, shakes that can last for up to two weeks. Both Benzos and GHB, if taken in significant enough amounts, can result in coma or death. Or he may have used ketamine, which comes on fast. It causes delusions, loss of motor control, out-of-body experiences, altered perception, memory loss, a loss of sense of self. Or he may have used a “Z-Drug” like Ambien (Zolpidem) or zopiclone. It may have been an over-the-counter cough suppressant or Benadryl or even Visine, yes Visine, which contains tetrahydrozoline, and when ingested, lowers your heart rate, causing potential irritability, drowsiness, sweating, blurred vision, nausea and vomiting, coma. But really, just about any drug can be used to “roofie” someone, especially when combined with alcohol. (A lot of drug-facilitated sexual assaults are committed with the aid of alcohol alone.) I have my theories, but I don’t know what the stranger slipped me.

The data about who gets drugged and by whom and by what is poor. This is in part because many who are drugged don’t approach authorities, maybe because they’ve ingested illegal things and/or alcohol knowingly prior to being assaulted, or they’re underage, or just scared or ashamed.

I dressed to teach, considering but quickly dismissing the idea that I should go to the hospital instead. My reasoning, if I was capable of reasoning that emotional, foggy morning, was that someone else drugging me wasn’t a big deal the way that being raped was a big deal. Besides, I was now two-thirds of a continent away from the scene of the crime. But also I think I had been worried that a test would come back negative, and therefore no one would believe me. Now I know that a test coming back negative wouldn’t have been definitive proof that I wasn’t drugged. That the sheer variety of substances that can be used to temporarily incapacitate someone, not to mention how quickly some of those substances move through a system, means that false negatives are not uncommon.

Perhaps the biggest reason I thought I was somehow immune to being drugged was that I didn’t fit my own stereotype of who that happens to. I wasn’t some naive teen with a big red cup. I’d been that girl; I’d done those years. I thought back to all dark living rooms, all the rank kitchens, all the crowded dorm rooms and patios and sweaty dance floors. I thought back to all the bowls of cloudy pink punch, the rounds of shots, the mixed drinks someone I didn’t know bought me, all the vulnerable situations I’d been in, here and abroad. To be honest, I never watched my drink intently, not really, but I’d made it, somehow. Now, not only did I feel too old to be drugged by a stranger, whoever had drugged me had evidently done so while I was standing with my glass in my hand. I’d never set it down. There’d been witnesses everywhere. It’s possible one of them even saw.

I gave my brother a call as I drove across the river to teach. I’d texted him as soon as we’d landed in O’Hare to change planes that morning, telling him we thought I’d been drugged. He hadn’t responded. Tom and I have little experience talking to each other about personal things. To call him to talk further about what happened to me was not something I wanted to do, but I needed someone in my family to believe me.

“I don’t remember anything,” I said, “from about that moment when the show started, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on an airplane.”

“You were really messed up,” he said, flatly. “You like couldn’t walk.” I understood why he would be skeptical of me, given how I’d acted, given how we’d been raised to resent belligerent drunks.

“Exactly,” I said, realizing my tone was persuasive. “And we had like three, four drinks, plus a sandwich in the course of the whole day? It doesn’t make sense I’d be that fucked up, you know that.” And he conceded that.

What he finally asked was: “Wait, so this means you missed Skrillex?”

I hung up. I taught, an automaton, and went home and curled up in bed and slept for a long time.

That evening, my mom called and left a message saying she’d seen on the news that a few girls had been sexually assaulted during the festival. She didn’t mention me, or ask how I was, or say she was sorry that someone had done this to me.

I looked up the story. Three separate sexual assaults — with a suspicion that drugs were involved — were being investigated. “Each of the victims had been drinking, but investigators have conducted toxicology examinations to determine if anything else was in their systems such as drugs that may be connected to the sexual assaults,” one report read. I don’t know what came of these complaints.

Justine Zwiebel for BuzzFeed

In the days that followed, my brain defogged and my bruises healed. Iowan summer was ripe and green, and the trees buzzed with locusts. When friends asked how my trip to California was, I replied it was good up until I got roofied at a Skrillex show. They’d laugh and then stop laughing and then touch my arm and ask, “Really?” and I’d say, “Really,” and they’d look grave and maybe I’d tell the story, the last sip of wine, the crowd, the airplane. They’d be horrified. After a while, though, they’d laugh just a little more, guiltily now, and say something along the lines of, “Well, that’s what you get for being at a Skrillex show,” and I’d laugh back, because it’s much easier to deal with something like this in that way.

And I get it. Roofies. Skrillex. It’s funny.

I was getting used to telling the story when one friend replied, “Oh, I got roofied, too, last year.” We were eating burgers topped with kimchi in my backyard, the grill still hot and the locusts particularly loud as the sun set.

He told me he thinks the drink that was drugged was meant for someone else, and though he had no memory whatsoever of what happened next, the unaccounted hours were beaten all over his skin the next morning. I’ve since learned of five more of my friends who’ve also been drugged in recent years: two men and four women. All were in their twenties or thirties. None were out alone. They were with friends, former colleagues, a fiancée. They were at bars, a club, a Christmas party. One was raped.

Our stories have many things in common. The amnesia. The depression that followed. Many of my friends likewise grappled with feeling complicit in the crimes committed against them. And those who were not sexually assaulted find themselves wanting to play down what happened to them precisely because they escaped the worst, as if what happened weren’t a sort of seizure. But most importantly, in the wake of our experience, the reactions of some around us affirmed that sense of culpability. That had we not put ourselves at that proverbial music festival, this wouldn’t have happened.

What happened to us happened within the already complex landscapes of our lives, our mired relationships with others and self-control and self-love and, for someone like me in particular, with alcohol. Until now, when I’ve told this story, I’ve left out some of the most crucial parts: the family I come from, their responses, and the fact that I’m petrified therefore at the implicit accusation that I was just that wasted. And of course a drop of doubt, a horrible drop, remains. I realize it’s hard to trust me because of the family I come from, and because I do not have a lab report to back me up, but I know what happened to me. I’ve lost bits of late nights to alcohol before; I’ve woken up and blinkingly shuffled through the memories I have of a conversation with a cab driver, laughed or winced at some text I sent. I know the amount of drinking I’d have to do to get to that place of little control, and I was not there. The extreme absence that was me during those hours in San Francisco, the extreme horror of coming to on that plane — that was something else.

There are things I would do differently. I would have gone to the hospital as soon as we’d landed in Iowa. I would have called the SFPD and filed a police report. And maybe I would have gotten bold enough to tell my family how much worse they made a terrible event. But if I could go back, I would blame myself, and them, less.

The blame should go to the person in the crowd, the one with the vial or the pill in his sweaty hand, one he stole or bought online or at the corner Walgreens. Maybe he’s someone who knows better, or doesn’t. Maybe his friends have assured him this isn’t a big deal. Maybe this is his deepest, most shameful secret. Maybe he’s done this before, or maybe I was the first. How it’s come to this for him, I can’t be sure. I may not have been the only one he drugged that night.

It’s dark out and it’s crowded and I’m standing there, tipsy, distracted, when he decides I’m it, I’m the mark. He’s nervous as he drops the drug into my drink and relieved when I take that sip, but then Brian comes back, stands next to me. The air pulses. He moves quickly away, upset, perhaps relieved. Regardless, the chances he’ll get caught, the chances what he’s done will ever catch up with him, will affect his life to the extent that they’ve affected mine, are so low, they’re almost laughable.





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